Debates regarding nutrition and recommended foods abound throughout the US and the world. Even as we become more interested in the foods we eat and the effects those foods have on our bodies, there is still a great amount of confusion among most. One such argument is the consumption of refined grains versus whole grains. Some have sworn off refined grain products such as white bread, while others may be contemplating if they should do the same. Are refined grains healthy? Do they have a place in our diet?
First, a little background
Grain is made up of three parts: bran, germ, and endosperm. A refined grain is one in which the bran and germ have been removed, leaving only the endosperm. Whole grains, on the other hand, contain all parts of the grain. Processing grains causes a loss in B- vitamins and iron at anywhere from 60-80%, depending on the process (Pyler and Gorton 2008).
Thankfully, science has found a way to compensate for these losses. Enrichment is a process that adds back nutrients to the levels originally found in a food prior to processing. Enrichment means refined grains contain equivalent amounts of B-vitamins and iron as those present in whole wheat.
This process began during WWII. Military leaders knew food needed to be nutritious to provide fuel for soldiers. During this time, there were many vitamin deficiency issues among all citizens. Enrichment positively impacted the health of Americans tremendously; especially considering the importance and prevalence of grains in the diet across a wide range of demographics.
Did you know?
Refined grain products make up a large amount of the bakery items available today due to the functionality in recipes and general acceptance over whole grains. Refined grain products include items such as white bread, baking mixes with all-purpose flour, bagels, pasta, cakes, etc.
To choose a whole grain product that contains all parts of the grain, look for the whole grain stamp. This stamp indicates the product contains more than 8 grams of whole grains per serving.
What’s the difference between whole wheat and whole grain? Nothing! Wheat is simply a type of grain.
Mulitgrain products, on the other hand, do not necessarily contain whole grains. They may simply contain different types of grain. So, just keep this in mind when choosing baked goods on your next shopping trip.
Whole grain benefits
Why are grains refined? From a food science perspective, refined grains increase the shelf life of products. They also have a fine, more uniform texture and neutral color that is important when baking.
So, why choose whole grains? What benefits do the bran and germ found in whole wheat provide? These components contain fiber, specifically insoluble fiber, that is known for its health benefits to the colon. Both refined grains and whole grains contain fiber, but whole grains contain higher amounts because the bran and germ are still included. This is why current dietary recommendations advise to “make half your grains whole.”
Despite this benefit, whole grain products are often not accepted by many consumers. A more distinct taste and darker color may detract some. Others may not fully understand the difference between white bread and whole grain bread. The habits formed while they were young may be hard to break.
That brings us to the final question: are refined grains less healthy than whole grains? Whole grains contain similar nutrient levels provided by enrichment in refined grains but have more fiber. This is a critical component, especially considering most Americans do not eat enough fiber.
However, in terms of B-vitamins and iron, the two deliver similar benefits. Consumers should not avoid refined grains for being inherently “unhealthy.” Refined grains provide nutrients that are important to the diet and may be difficult for some to access elsewhere.
It is important to equip yourself with the knowledge to understand the difference between products and make choices that are best for you. I do not feel the answer has to be finite, either refined or whole. Both types of grain provide benefits to our diets.
Next time you’re at the grocery store, considering picking up some whole grain products to ensure you’re eating a balanced, healthy diet.
Pyler EJ, Gorton LA. 2008. Baking science and technology 4th Edition. Sosland Publishing Company. Kansas City, MO. pp 480-488
Miller, R. 2014. The case for refined grains in a balanced diet. Cereal Foods World. 59:3 137-140. http://dx.doi.org/10.1094/CFW-59-3-0137
*This post modified from original work for a class assignment
Disclaimer: This post is not meant as nutritional or medical advice, merely a scientific review of two types of products.